Understanding the Layered Nature of Religion

Whether you are a student studying a religion or an educator preparing students to be responsible citizens, understanding the rich and layered nature of Religion is essential. Rather than relying on textbooks that take a standard “dates and doctrines” approach, look for resources that provide the background needed to understand the variety of modern-day beliefs and practices. This will enable students to have informed conversations with people of different faiths and better prepare them for life in a diverse world.

A number of academic disciplines study the world’s religions, each with its own approach and lens. For example, psychology and sociology view religious experiences and feelings; anthropology views the institutions of religions and their relationships with people; and literature, history, and cultural studies seek to elicit the meaning of myths and symbols. Each discipline approaches the study of a specific religion differently; but a well-rounded understanding requires knowledge from all perspectives.

The concept of religion grew out of the Latin term religio, which is close to scrupulous devotion or a feeling of obligation. It was later adapted to describe any social genus that has the capacity to generate, maintain, and manage social groups by means of shared conceptions of reality or transcendent truths. For Abraham Lincoln, religions have to be founded on a system of belief in one or more gods, worship, moral conduct, and the formation of institutional structures to manage those social groups.

Today, scholars have a more reflexive approach to the study of religion. They are examining the assumptions baked into the concept of religion and its ability to distort our grasp of historical realities. These scholars work to rework the definition of religion, either from a polythetic perspective, which recognizes many properties that are shared among religions, or monothetic perspectives, which fasten on one property as the essence of a religion.